The Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Old Testament and first of the “legal books,” can be a difficult read for modern Christians. In its pages we encounter a myriad of tedious, bewildering, even bizarre-sounding requirements that God laid on ancient Israel, with little apparent relevance to the Church today. This probably explains why many a pious resolve to read straight through the Bible cover to cover has foundered among the shoals of Leviticus, or why a family physician once advised me to read this book for its sleep-inducing value (“Take two chapters one-half hour before bedtime.”). Among Jewish readers, Leviticus has enjoyed a more favorable reception. Historically, no book has had greater impact on Jews than this, and it remains among the first books taught to Jewish children even today.
Leviticus contains some of the Bible’s richest insights on what it means for God’s people to be a liturgical community.
When encountering a perplexing passage in the Bible, I teach my students to welcome the difficulty factor as a challenge: We simply have to work harder at getting to the heart of it. Those who accept that challenge discover that Leviticus contains some of the Bible’s richest insights on what it means for God’s people to be a liturgical community. In fact, Leviticus is the one biblical book devoted entirely to the complementary themes of holy liturgy and holy living, and the essential relationship between the two. This is reflected in the book’s structure, where chapters 1-16 focus on the former (holy liturgy)—on formal worship at the Tabernacle, where God resides with his people; and chapters 17-27 on the latter (holy living)—the kind of conduct that flows from and befits a liturgy-centered existence. Holy liturgy, according to Leviticus, is fundamental to holy living, and holy living the necessary counterpart to holy liturgy. These are the means by which God’s people are enabled to fulfill their calling as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” as God’s agents of blessing and salvation to the world (Exodus 19:5-6).
Four Searching Questions
In his Psalms commentary, The Vitality of Worship, Robert Davidson confronts us with this bit of penetrating candor: “If worship does not lead us to ask searching questions about ourselves, then it is little more than a harmless hobby.” Leviticus helps us to ask searching questions about ourselves with respect to worship, questions which directly impact how we think about liturgy and life.
Four of those searching questions come to the fore in that part of the book which focuses on the sacrificial rituals at the heart of Israel’s Tabernacle liturgy (chs. 1-7). Each of these contributes to the larger question of how liturgy can be “a soothing aroma to the Lord.” Most Christians have a sense that our liturgy should please the Lord, but not all agree on what that might entail. Relatively few, it seems, consider the opposite possibility, that our liturgy might at times not please the Lord. The following four questions get to the heart of the matter from the perspective of Leviticus.
Question 1: Is the object of our liturgy God?
The question demands more than a general and over-confident response in the affirmative: “Of course it is. That’s why I go to church.” In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger queries: “What, then, is special about the liturgy of Israel?” His response might seem unsurprising: “First of all, without doubt, the One to whom it is directed.” But putting the matter this way invites us to review just who God is at the center of the liturgy in Leviticus.
In Leviticus, the worshiped God is not a vague “higher power” or a shadowy, nameless “concept.” Above all, YHWH, the Lord, the named God of Israel, is removed (the meaning of ‘holy’)—separate and distinct from all that is sinful. That makes the wonder the more wonderful, for in marvelous mercy and amazing grace this removed God has redeemed a people as his own, has revealed himself and his will to them, and now resides within and among them in familial covenant relationship.
There’s enough in that string of R’s for God’s people to center their liturgy, now and forever! Worship is a pleasing aroma when this One, and no lesser god—not the golden calf of Exodus 32, for example, or the gods of Israel’s neighbors, or the modern-day gods of power, possessions, popularity, and prestige—is truly the object of our worship, the love of our hearts, and the focus of our devotion. Leviticus invites us to ask: Is he, really? Or has something else—perhaps an idol of our own making or choosing—subtly usurped God’s place of singular and supreme devotion at the center of our affections and aspirations, enticing us to worship at other alluring altars?
Question #1 summons us to a long, reflective pause: Is the God of which Leviticus speaks truly the object of our liturgy?
Question 2: Is the objective of our liturgy God-pleasing?
In Leviticus the actual aim or goal of worship is to bring pleasure to the heart of God. No fewer than 17 times, liturgical sacrifices are described as a “soothing aroma” or “sweet-smelling oblation” to the Lord. The vivid imagery of this phrase conjures up the idea of God’s delighting in it, being soothed by it, finding pleasure in it. Perhaps the fragrance of liturgy, including the use of incense in some of the sacrificial rituals, affects the divine disposition in much the same way that the aroma from a backyard grill on a summer evening affects many of ours!
Here’s the point: Whatever enjoyment or entertainment value worship offers, it begins with worshipers submitting and adjusting their tastes and preferences to God’s, not the other way around. In this connection, when the objective in our liturgy is God-pleasing, our usual questions and standard criteria (How was Mass this morning? Did you enjoy it? Get anything out of it? Did you like the music?) miss the mark—badly. These concerns are apropos our recreational or leisure activities, but they are quite beside the point when it comes to the liturgy of the Mass. Liturgy is first and foremost a matter of what satisfies God’s tastes, not ours. This is why we call it the sacrifice of the Mass: it’s not about what we get, but what we give. Accordingly, liturgy invites us to adjust our likes and dislikes to God’s; or to put this differently, God-pleasing liturgical tastes can be trained and acquired.
Liturgy is first and foremost a matter of what satisfies God’s tastes, not ours.
By now it will be clear that liturgy in Leviticus is countercultural to a world obsessed with a what’s-in-it-for-me mentality. Strikingly, Leviticus never presents comfort or familiarity or cultural relevance as the decisive criterion. Imagine the Israelites responding to the liturgical instructions in Leviticus 1-7: “Hey, Moses, can you please tell YHWH that I’m not very comfortable worshiping like that.” Or, “You sure could save your breath on all the details if we just did something, you know, familiar to us.” Or, “Don’t you think attendance at the Tabernacle might increase next Sabbath if we simply adjusted our liturgical style to something our Canaanite neighbors can relate to and appreciate?”
Related, liturgy in Leviticus is never viewed as “whatever feels good” or “whatever fits your preferred style.” There is no hint of “marketing” worship to please the target audience, turning liturgy into a form that suits their untrained or poorly acquired tastes. According to Leviticus, God rather than the worshiper defines and prescribes appropriate and pleasing liturgy. At least in the Protestant world, my previous home for 65 years, worship wars were not uncommon. I hear rumblings and rumors of similar wars in the post-Vatican II Church, as well. Most battles of this nature reflect the confusion that results from a church that fails to ask the searching questions posed by Leviticus. And when that happens, we are but one short step from turning what should be a soothing aroma into a disgusting odor, as the Prophets later warn in an impressive string of scathing indictments that stretch from Isaiah to Malachi.
Question 3: Are the offerings of our liturgy God-befitting?
Leviticus consistently stresses that the offerings brought to the Lord are judged by a standard that is calibrated to the worthiness of the One worshiped—not to the whims of the worshiper. In most cases, suitable offerings are defined as those “without blemish,” or those that are choice or costly. Later passages in the Bible rebuke would-be worshipers for tossing God the scraps in the name of worship, thereby depriving God of his due and forcing him to vie for whatever does receive our first and our finest.
According to Leviticus, there is a direct correlation between the quality of a worshiper’s offering and the worth that a worshiper ascribes to the Lord. Or to put it sharply, worship that costs nothing is worth nothing, as David would confess in a later day: “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24). When God has to compete for our first and finest, we force him to contend with other gods in our lives. This is the point of the First Commandment in the Decalogue, or its positive version in the famous Shema‘ of Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
Liturgical sacrifices become defective, and an otherwise pleasing aroma turns into a disgusting odor when we rob God of our best—when we offer liturgical leftovers.
We must face the implications squarely. Liturgical sacrifices become defective, and an otherwise pleasing aroma turns into a disgusting odor when we rob God of our best—when we offer liturgical leftovers, religious remains, from a life otherwise expended and exhausted on lesser interests and occupations and commitments. This happens, for example, whenever we present to God our tired bodies and unrested minds on Sunday morning, depleted from unwise decisions and unnecessary activities Saturday night (After all, tomorrow is only Sunday; if I’m not alert at least it won’t affect my job or school performance. God will understand.), or token offerings from a paycheck expended on the “necessities” of life (excluding God, of course), or limited availability to serve our parish ministries, because of all the prior commitments in our lives (like recreation, TV, sports, socializing, the tyranny of overwork). In short, the vitality of our liturgy suffers whenever we reduce worship to convenience. Once again, worship that costs nothing is worth nothing.
Question 4: Are we, the offerers of liturgy, God-reflecting?
Whether by explicit statement or otherwise, Leviticus repeatedly emphasizes that the worshipers God desires are those who worship in every aspect of life, not those who merely engage in an official formality one time per week in a public place. True worshipers are those for whom there is no dichotomy or disconnect between life and liturgy. Specifically, what God desires and deserves, according to Leviticus, is everyday life lived in growing personal and practical holiness as a reflection of God’s own holiness—like a mirror reflecting the character of God whose image we bear.
This emphasis dominates the second part of Leviticus (chs. 17-27), with its thematic focus encapsulated in the motto: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (19:2); again, “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (20:26). Significantly, holy living in the latter part of Leviticus is both the goal and consequence of holy liturgy in the earlier part as well as its ground or condition. The relationship between how we pray and how we live is reciprocal and essential. One does not exist without the other.
Among the disquieting passages that speak to the issue of turning pleasing aromas into disgusting odors, clearly the largest number focus on liturgical detachment. This happens whenever God’s people compartmentalize life into worship (what we do on Sunday morning) and other (how we live the rest of the week), when we disconnect the conduct of our life from the confession of our lips, when we sever the essential connection between holy living and holy liturgy. This is how pleasing aromas become stinky odors. And so, for example—reader, be warned—when we genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament on Sunday, and then we forget to live Monday through Saturday in light of that profound reverence; or we trace the sign of the Cross over our minds, hearts, and shoulders (or at the Gospel reading, over our minds, lips, and hearts) without considering the implications of that Cross or that Gospel and its power to transform our thoughts, intentions, words, and actions throughout the week; or we ingest the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ without being transfigured into the likeness of the One we have consumed so that others might see less of us and more of him the other six days.
When this happens, the antidote, of course, is not to forsake the sacramental form, as some have thoughtlessly proposed, but to (re)connect our liturgy to our life, our practice to our profession, our worship to our walk. Or to appeal once again to Leviticus, to understand that chapters 1-16 (holy liturgy) and chapters 17-27 (holy living) are bound inseparably together—the former sustaining the latter, the latter incarnating the former. Or in the words of St. Paul: “I appeal to you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:1-2, italics mine).
Postscript: Liturgy, Life, and Leviticus
“If worship does not lead us to ask searching questions about ourselves, then it is little more than a harmless hobby,” notes Davidson. Informed by Leviticus, worshipers are led to ask searching questions that get to the heart of biblical liturgy: Is its object God and its objective God-pleasing? Are its offerings God-befitting and its offerers God-reflecting?
These questions are not unlike those which the psalmists raise, echoing the message of Leviticus: “Lord, who may sojourn in your tent, who may dwell on your holy hill?” (Psalm 15:1). Again, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” (24:3). The response to such searching questions, as stated, for example, in Psalms 15:2-5 and 24:4, could not be clearer: Those whom the Lord welcomes to his holy precincts are worshipers whose liturgy and life share the common quality of holiness as delineated in Leviticus.
- Robert Davidson, The Vitality of Worship: A Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 57-58. ↑
- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000), 36. ↑
- Leviticus 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 9, 12; 3:5, 16; 4:31; 6:15, 21; et al. ↑
- Leviticus 2:1, 2, 15, 16; 5:11; 6:15; 24:7. ↑
- Especially Isaiah 1:10-20; Jeremiah 7:22-23; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8; and Malachi 1:6–2:9. Also, 1 Samuel 15:22-23; Psalms 40:6-8, 50:16-23, and 51:16-17; Proverbs 21:3; and Matthew 9:13; 12:7. ↑
- About 20 times in Leviticus (e.g., 1:3, 10; 3:1, 6; 4:3, 23, 28, 32; 5:15, 18; 6:6; et al.). ↑
- Cf. Leviticus 22:17-22, 31-33. ↑
- See especially Malachi 1:6-14. ↑
- See note 5 above. ↑
Vern Steiner is the founding president of the Emmaus Institute for Biblical Studies, based in the Diocese of Lincoln, NE. Prior to entering the Catholic Church in 2015, he enjoyed a long career as an evangelical Protestant pastor, seminary professor, and founder and president of a Bible institute. His teaching specializations include biblical introduction and interpretation, languages and exegesis, exposition and theology. His academic degrees are in Bible, History, and Philosophy (B.A.), Pastoral Ministry (M.Div.), Biblical Literature (Th.M.), and Exegetical Theology (Ph.D., Trinity Divinity School, Chicago). Steiner has authored published and unpublished materials at both general and technical levels. When he is not in his study, he enjoys watching sports, woodworking, and especially spending time with his wife Carol, their two married children, and their ten grandchildren.